Blog Post - May 13, 2013

A World of Tough Choices – Are You Ready?

Think about the toughest decision you ever had to make at work. Was it a decision about how to address employee misconduct, perhaps when the employee in question was going through a difficult time personally? Was it a decision that involved balancing the conflicting needs of the customers you serve with the needs of your agency or organization? Or was it perhaps a decision that required you to choose between a "quick win" solution to a problem and a better, but less immediate, solution?

We know what we're supposed to do when faced with a choice between right and wrong, even if some of us occasionally succumb to the lure of the wrong choice. We know it's wrong to misuse agency funds, abuse the public trust, or bully a co-worker. But what about when we have to choose between two options that both seem right, and are both solidly grounded in the core values of our organizations or the dictates of our own consciences? The ability to make a decision in the face of such choices is what often defines our leadership legacy.

How People Make Tough Choices, by Rushworth M. Kidder, late President of the Institute for Global Ethics, makes the case that these are the most challenging choices leaders face, and the ones they must prepare themselves for. Ethical dilemmas do lend themselves to analysis and resolution; having a model to follow can serve to "unmuddy the waters" when we find ourselves facing these touch choices. As leaders, we need the ability to both analyze and resolve these dilemmas.

Imagine you've learned about an employee who is taking advantage of her telework periods to tend to family and personal matters and is often unavailable during the workday, creating a burden on her co-workers. You also know she was recently diagnosed with cancer, is out of sick and vacation time, and as a single mother is overwhelmed with her situation. Organizational policy says the same rules apply for all, and people who telework are in a work status and must be available. Justice demands that you take appropriate performance and/or disciplinary action. But your sense of mercy tells you to recognize her hardship and find a compassionate way to handle the situation. You're now faced with a choice that puts your values in conflict, and those are the toughest choices of all.

Tough decisions don't go away as your career progresses; on the contrary, the more responsibility you have, the more you will be faced with the need to make courageous decisions in the face of difficult choices. Senior government leaders are continually faced with tough choices such as balancing multiple agendas, the rights of future generations, agency policy, and the interests of numerous stakeholders. Yet these decisions do lend themselves to analysis and sound resolution. Developing the ability to resolve "right versus right" ethical dilemmas is a foundational leadership skill that will serve you well throughout your career.